New Year’s wishes for some Catholic brethren

George Weigel

2017 promises to be a challenging year for the Catholic Church. Thus some new year’s wishes:

I wish Catholic progressives a calmer 2017 than they managed in 2016. The last months of the year now fading into the rear-view mirror were marked by an extraordinary number of bilious attacks on those raising questions about Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia from the party of dialogue, collegiality, and pluralism. The biliousness was, to be sure, replicated in spades on traditionalist websites; I’ll get to that momentarily. Still, the gang that regularly declares itself the cutting edge of a Catholicism that has “turned the page” and “moved on” displayed an astonishing amount of defensiveness (often couched in cheesy psychologizing) in 2016. That behavior hardly suggests people confident of their position and the future of their project.

I wish Catholic traditionalists a 2017 in which they take comfort from the fact that the living parts of the world Church are those that have embraced all-in Catholicism, more formally known as the symphony of Catholic truth. The parallel fact, of course, is that Catholic Lite characterizes the dying parts of the Church in Europe and elsewhere; but I hope no one, wherever they’re located on the Catholic map, takes any satisfaction from that meltdown. Facts are facts, though, and if the progressive “narrative” of a great contemporary Catholic renaissance under the banner of mercy is ill-supported by the data, so is the traditionalist lament that the end is at hand. Thirty-five years of building the Church of the New Evangelization cannot be deconstructed in a relative blink of the eye. It just isn’t happening.

I wish for all those involved in the Amoris Laetitia debate in 2017 a serious wrestling with the bottom-line issue in this argument, which is the reality of revelation. Does Vatican II’s teaching that divine revelation judges history, including this historical moment and its sociological realities, still guide the Church? Does the plain meaning of the words of Jesus and Paul on the character of marriage, and on worthy, life-giving reception of holy communion, bind us as it has bound Christians for millennia? If not, why not? (And let’s discuss this without the red herring of “fundamentalism,” please.) Might those committed to an interpretation of Amoris Laetitia that yields an “internal forum” solution to difficult marital situations explain how that approach will not lead to an Anglican-like unraveling of doctrine? Might those who interpret Amoris Laetitia in light of the full teaching of John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio show us examples of how this approach has proven pastorally effective?

I wish for all 2017 Amoris Laetitia debaters a recognition that the confusions of “the faithful” about pastoral care for the divorced and remarried have less to do with sacramental discipline, the doctrine of grace, or the reality of revelation than with the nature of marriage itself. Contemporary western culture has dumbed marriage down to a mere contract of mutual convenience, perhaps marked by some measure of affection. That debasement is one facet of a general crisis caused by our culture’s defective idea of the human person: we’re all just twitching bundles of desires, and actualizing those desires through willfulness is the full meaning of freedom. What do all of us involved in the Amoris Laetitia debate have to say to that? What is each of us doing to heal the brokenness that inevitably results from freedom’s decay into license?

I wish for Pope Francis the tenacity and courage in 2017 to finish the job of Vatican financial reform he was elected to effect, without fear or favor, without calculation or temporizing. I wish the Church a new year in which the New Evangelization is no longer impaired or threatened by Italianate corruption, a year in which norms of honesty and transparency are hard-wired into the Roman Curia – a year in which the people of the Church are reassured that their gifts are directed to the evangelical purposes for which they’re intended.

Finally, I wish for all Catholics an effective solidarity with the persecuted Church throughout the world. These are our brothers and sisters, and we owe them.

COMING UP: Christmas and the divine proximity

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In October 2001 I had a long conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It was but weeks after 9/11; a new century and millennium were opening before us; and I wanted to get Ratzinger’s view on the main issues for the Church and for theology in the twenty-first century.

The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI was deeply concerned about the moral relativism he thought was corroding the West, and located its roots in western high culture’s refusal to say that anything was “the truth,” full stop. This was a serious problem. For when there is only “your truth” and “my truth,” there is no firm cultural foundation for society, for democracy, or for living nobly and happily.

Then Ratzinger turned to Christology, the Church’s reflection on the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Both the Church and the world were suffering from a “diminishing Christ,” he suggested. Some wanted a less assertive Christology to avoid conflict with other world religions. Some wanted to make Jesus “one of the illuminators of God,” but not the unique, saving Son of God. Both these interpretations were deeply problematic, the cardinal continued, because they pushed God farther and farther away from humanity.

“If Jesus is not the Son of God,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “then God really is at a great distance from us.” So perhaps the chilling sense of the absence of God evident throughout much of the western world was “a product of the absence of Jesus Christ,” who is not just moral exemplar but Savior, Lord, and God-with-us – “Emmanuel.” On the other hand, “if we see this Jesus” born for us and crucified for us, “then we have a much more precise idea of God, who God is, and what God does.”

Then the cardinal connected the dots to 9/11. A “more precise” idea of God, gained through an experience of God-with-us, was not only important for the Church and its evangelical mission. It was also “crucial for the dialogue with the Islamic world, which really is about the question, who is God?”

Fifteen years later, that typically brilliant Ratzingerian analysis seems even more salient – and not just in terms of whatever dialogue may be possible with Islam, but in terms of us.

Loneliness is the modern predicament and it’s getting worse. I was recently in New York, and as walking is the only way get around traffic-choked Manhattan, I hoofed it. And what powerfully struck me is how isolated the denizens of the Concrete Jungle are – and are by choice. For the vast majority of people you bump into (sometimes literally) on the sidewalks of New York are living inside their own reality: Pod World, I started calling it when the iPod was all the rage. Today, there are very few New York pedestrians to be found without ear buds of some sort stuck into their heads. The iPod is ancient history, but the buds are still there, and so is the isolation.

Social media is no antidote to this isolation, for tweets or Facebook postings (not to mention comment threads beneath online articles) are not substitutes for real conversation. In many cases, I fear, they intensify the loneliness and the self-absorption from which it often springs.

Christmas reminds us what Christians have to say to this pervasive loneliness. We say “God is with us,” as throughout the Christmas season we celebrate the divine answer to the Advent plea, “O come, o come Emmanuel.” That plea did not go unrequited. We see the answer to it in the crèches in our homes. God is with us, not in awe and majesty, but in that most accessible of human forms, the baby who reaches out for our embrace.

God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the midst of our lives, not outside them. A few years ago I began collecting Fontanini crèche figures, and while the display is now as big as it’s going to get, there’s a reason why the manger in our crèche is surrounded by dozens of figures: decoratively speaking, that’s the best way to express my conviction that the Lord of history came into history to redeem history in the midst of history.

He is Emmanuel. He is God-with-us. We are not alone.

Merry Christmas.